Bordeaux and Burgundy’s Relevance on the American Wine Scene

P7141848 (Photo credit: cumi&ciki)

Bordeaux and Burgundy have been in something of the doldrums in terms of relevance on the American wine scene since the recession began in 2008. It was at this time that, while the near collapse of financial markets in the west, there was an influx of new wealth in China.  The Chinese nouveau riche with their insatiable appetite for the best Bordeaux had to offer, drove prices up at a time when budgets were shrinking here. Also at the very, most wealthy, in America and Europe and Russia just continued to gain wealth – snapping up blue chip wines for their cellars. The result the rarest of Burgundies and the most highly celebrated Bordeaux climbed, and climbed in price

The resulting wine trends in the United States was a combination of a rejection of Bordeaux’s pricing, and focus on wines from other places. For the generally stayed Bordeaux drinker, Brunello di Montalcino was an easy retreat.  Comparatively, Brunellos were cheap, delicious, and some of the very best producers weren’t much more than $60. With their excellent international reputation, softer tannins, Brunello was a socially acceptable down-sizing for the Bordeaux drinker.  For a more adventurous Burgundy drinker, there was a lot of thrilling options to choose from, most notably the remarkable Barolos and Barbarescos coming from Piemonte, and Aglianicos from Campagna and Basilicata.  Although for inexperienced tasters these wines have more challenges of in terms of structure and bitterness, their aromatics and texture are a huge draw with those wines, surpassing Burgundy in quality and complexity at each price point.

“The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that cannot be produced anywhere else in the world.”

This economic dynamic created a scarcity of the top wines, while most of the lower and middle tiered wines sat, lingering in distributor warehouses and retailers shelves.  Of course this has always been the problem. The top 1% of wines has an eager market, the rest are more difficult to sell. Only now, this disparity is much more acute.  Now, as the stock market soars and the housing market moves back toward record highs, we can predict that this trend will continue.  The difference I think, is the wine in the next tiers down will be forced to lower their prices because the most of the middle class is not gaining wealth in the recovery.  There will not be an increased market for middle tier wines, rather these wines will need to retreat some in price.

In the past, the first growth and second growth Bordeaux were not so expensive that the middle class wine buyer could buy them occasionally, and the same went with Grand Cru Burgundy.  But I have always felt the soul of those appellations are those below those haut crus.  In Burgundy, I have always felt, that if you don’t know the premier cru’s you don’t know Burgundy.  Sure the Grand Cru tasted great.  They were ripe and succulent – anybody could like those.  The true soul, the heart and character of Burgundy is in the terroir, and if the wines got too ripe, this would be covered up, and the aromatics would be buried. For that reason I have always been a fan of the ”off years.”  To me, they seemed to retain more aromatics and just seemed to age better. The ripeness of the Grand Crus, at least to me, often masked the vineyard’s terrior.  As for Bordeaux, I have always been a fan of the 3rd through 5th growth Bordeaux and Cru Bourgeois. I know, it’s an underdog thing, but they were really good then, and today they are much better even now which in many cases justifies their price increases.  Besides, what hasn’t gone up in price?

Having just started to go out into the marketplace this week with some of these Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, it is fun to watch the light bulbs go off as the wines are tasted.  In many cases, the reactions I got are as if these buyers had suddenly remembered that Bordeaux and Burgundy even existed.  That’s how far removed the wine industry in many places has become from these two regions.  The wines from the more traditional producers, really resonated, because they are flavors that can not be produced anywhere else in the world. It makes you wonder if part of the problem with the relevance of Bordeaux is not only the prices, but the extreme modernization of the wine making, and the resultant fruit-driven styles that have taken hold there.

Givry vineyards 3
Givry vineyards 3 (Photo credit: Max xx)

Tasting the wines from these two classic French appellations is like a re-awakening. They are beautiful, full of personality and character. Sure, because of my new job I have a vested interest in the success of Burgundy and Bordeaux in the market place.  But I left my buyer’s position at The Wine Club precisely so I could immerse myself in the amazing portfolio at Atherton Wine Imports. While there certainly is a lot more competition for their attention, but I think Burgundy and Bordeaux are, and will again gain in relevance in the American wine consciousness.     Dean 


If James Gandolfini were a wine…

A Look At Ourselves, And Our Industry

I’ve been struggling with this post for a couple of weeks.  I don’t want it to come off as trite, hence the delay in sending it out. 

James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini (Photo credit: gdcgraphicsissue.

The death of James Gandolfini was pretty shocking.  Here was a man who was highly respected, and by many, revered as a true artist. That he died at such an early age

made his life and his work more poignant. But the event of his death made me think: If James Gandolfini were a wine, how would he have been judged?  Would he have been successful? Would anyone even have considered him?  Here was a man who did not have beauty, was not fit, but he exuded such character, strength, sensitivity and nuance.  Aren’t those all attributes we desire in a wine?  Aren’t those the things that actually define a great wine?

It dawned on me that wines are judged the same way we consider models or a Miss America contestant. It’s a beauty contest, and wine critics with their score cards, are telling us this wine is better than that wine, when all it really does is confuse the issue of what a wine is really about.

Wines are like actors, or at least the characters they play, but the majority of our wine critics, and the wine buying public, for the most part, treat wines like models. And everybody knows, the supermodel is the best example of a person, right? (sarcasm is intended here.) 

“To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine.”

But if we want real soul, and real character to mean something, and to really shine through, what do we as wine professionals do? To combat the constant dumbing down of wine, we’ve got to tell the stories of wine. I was telling my boss, “We’ve got all these really cool wines, and it’s our job to tell people about them.”

I have a new job, doing marketing for a small importer of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Despite representing some of the greatest domaines in Burgundy, and an incredible selection of Bordeaux, we have a challenge to relate how wonderful these wines are in virtually every vintage.

Although collectors should, they don’t tend to stock their cellars with the 2006, 2007 or 2008 vintages, all of which produced wonderful wines. Wines from these vintages show remarkable character, strength, quality, and they will age beautifully too.   These are the vintages that the top sommeliers are purchasing for their restaurants.  It is the producer’s name that is important, not so much the vintage.

But for some reason we, as American wine enthusiasts, have a hard time getting past our thing about vintages.  Take 2007 vintage in Bordeaux for instance. With the exception of 1961, the 2007 vintage is better than any vintage between the years 1960 to 1981, yet most wine collectors have completely dismissed the vintage as not worthy.

But it’s really a more extreme problem than just of vintage. In my last position as a wine buyer, I was constantly amazed that if you offered two wines from the same producer, from the same year, and one got 97 points and another got 96 points, people would only want to purchase the 97 point wine – even if the 96 point wine was significantly less expensive.  I guarantee that there is no qualitative difference between a 97 point wine and a 96 point wine – or even a 94 point wine for that matter.  Additionally, if you blind taste 10 people on those two wines, it is a sure bet that half of the tasters will like the lesser, 96 point wine better.

What is this national mentality that makes people want only the best, and how could the best be determined when taste is so subjective, and the simple fact that wines can “show” wildly differently on separate occasions?

 “You could go really hungry trying to sell wine without resorting pimping wine out with scores.”

As wine professionals, I realize we talk out of both sides of our face.  On one hand, many of us have a remarkable fascination with  wine and are quite dedicated to telling the hundreds of stories associated with them. On the other hand we’re also trying to put bread on our table, and we feel that we have to resort to using the scores (that we really often detest) to sell wine. We do it because in the time it takes to get your customers to blindly trust you, you could go really hungry without resorting to pimping wines by using scores.

Over the past three years, I wrote email blasts for The Wine Club.  About a third of the wines I wrote about didn’t have any scores (or I didn’t include them.) I wrote them up with exaggerated enthusiasm, ala Robert Parker, in an attempt to build a following for our store, and the wines we championed.  I thought it was important to build a reputation for being authority of wine ourselves. Quoting a score doesn’t make you an authority, does it?imgres

So for three years I tirelessly wrote up wines – with no scores, just my enthusiasm.  I found I could sell wines quite well up to about $25-$30. Above that price point, fagetabout-it.

In today’s wine world, is it necessary to score a wine in order to build a reputation as a wine authority? Certainly, it appears as though scores are required; which kind-of-sucks. I’ve really wrestled with this.  

When I taste wine, I don’t taste points, I taste wine.  But since Gerald Asher retired, (by far my favorite wine-writer) I can’t think of a successful critic that hasn’t resorted to giving wine points.

At this point it is tempting to digress into the problems revolving around scoring wine, and the inequities involved in the process.  I hope we all understand those issues and frustrations well enough, to let it sit there stewing, without addressing them.

Scores or no scores:

I think the answer to my question in the opening paragraph is clear.  It was in a sense rhetorical. Suffice it to say, (with all due respect to the late Mr. Gandolfini) that if he were a wine, very few members of the wine-buying public would ever gotten to experience Gandolfini’s fabulous character, strength, and nuance he would have projected.  This happens every single day in the wine world, and it is the great shame of the wine industry.


Go out and tell the stories.